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Cali, Colombia is a lively city with beautiful people, but don’t expect a classy city with world-class amenities. While Cali has its own special charm, it’s not for everyone.
When people tell me they want to come to Cali, I always recommend that they plan to stay in Cali for a while. It’s difficult for a tourist to see and understand Cali’s magic. When you really dedicate yourself to diving into and getting to know the culture, that’s when you begin to understand why Cali is Cali.
It’s a good idea to do your research before coming. The culture is different from other cities, like Bogotá (which is much like the U.S.). And it’s way less touristy than other cities in the country, like Medellín and Cartagena.
Here’s absolutely everything you should know before visiting Cali, Colombia:
Cali has the perfect climate for trying all of its amazing fruits! It seems like vendors are selling mango biche (green mango), chontaduro, or avocado on every street corner. Take this opportunity to try some of the freshest fruit you’ve ever tried.
If you’re in search of something more refreshing on a hot day, try some cholado– a snack with crushed ice, fresh fruit, fruit juice, and condensed milk. Or try champús– a refreshing drink made from corn, lulo (a local fruit that is DELICIOUS as a juice), pineapple, and more!
For lunch, try sancocho– a soup and dish that is served with hen.
In Cali, and the majority (if not all) of Colombia, lunch is the main meal of the day. Colombians eat a huge lunch around 1 or 2 P.M. and dinner is usually something small, like a sandwich. You can find a typical lunch for between $6.000 COP ($2 USD) and $12.000 COP ($4 USD) all around the city.
Cali is known for its lively parties and energetic people. Caleños are always down for a party. If you’re trying to learn salsa, this is the place to be. Cali is known as the salsa capital of the world and there’s no shortage of salsa schools or nightclubs where you can practice your new moves. A popular place for foreigners to practice salsa is La Topa Tolondra.
For those who aren’t in the mood for salsa, there are other types of clubs in Cali too. For example, La Pérgola plays a mix of American music, reggaeton and salsa. La Terraza and La Purga also play a mix of different music, but they’re a little more alternative. If you’re not sure what you want, head to Menga where there are a variety of different bars and clubs.
Caleños go out late, and sometimes it seems as if nobody is going to go out and randomly at 11 P.M. a plan is created. Expect to arrive at the club around 11 P.M. or 12 A.M. and to head back home around 5 A.M. If you’re only going to a bar, people generally go around 9 or 10 P.M. and leave around 2 A.M.
Another cool place to go out if you’re looking for something chill (and budget-friendly) is the Bulevar del Rio. This was a recent addition to the city and in the evenings during the weekends it’s filled with people chatting and drinking beers. It’s walking distance from San Antonio, which is where a majority of the city’s hostels are located.
Cali, Colombia has a reputation for being a dangerous city, but it’s beginning to outgrow its reputation. Keep in mind that Cali does have some incredibly dangerous neighborhoods, such as Siloé and Agua Blanca, where even the police are afraid to enter. Luckily, it’s almost impossible to end up in these neighborhoods by accident and you really have no reason to go to them or near them.
The rest of the city is relatively safe, despite occasional robberies and abundant petty theft. You’re going to need to take precautions that aren’t necessary in other places and adapt to the situation.
For example, you’ll notice that in many parts of the city people don’t stop at red lights during the night. It’s not because they’re in a rush; it’s to avoid getting robbed. You’ll notice that you simply can’t have your windows rolled down in some parts of the city. And you shouldn’t walk around texting on your phone. You’ll learn to always be aware of who’s behind you and if the man you’re walking toward on the street corner looks like he might rob you.
But you don’t need it to affect your everyday life. In general, you can walk around without worrying; just don’t make yourself a target. Or, as they say in Colombia, no da papaya. Don’t wear expensive jewelry and keep an eye on your things. Cali is NOT as dangerous as people make it out to be. You just need to be more aware than in other places.
Caleños are very social people. And it can be shocking to foreigners coming from countries where individual time and needs are highly valued. People ALWAYS want to do something and they always want to be around other people. It’s awesome if you’re trying to make friends, but it can also be overwhelming. Caleños are some of the kindest, happiest people you’ll ever meet.
The culture is pretty machista, but luckily changing with the younger generations. I’ll speak from personal experience: sometimes it’s frustrating to be a woman here. Men make condescending comments constantly. Catcalling is an epidemic. Women are expected to dress and behave a certain way. In my experience, this is has been more with random men on the street than my friends, but be aware of it.
Neighborhoods to Stay In
It’s important to know where to stay in Cali. Some neighborhoods aren’t safe and some are safe but boring.
There are some neighborhoods you should NEVER stay in- and you really have no reason to since there are no hostels located here and only some bad hotels. Never go to Agua Blanca, Siloé, or the other neighborhoods in the east of the city. I also recommend not staying in the city center. Some parts are okay, but if you don’t know the area it’s better to play it safe.
Most tourists stay in San Antonio (in the west), which is a well-located, colonial neighborhood with a lot of cute shops and restaurants and a park with a view of the city. Right next to San Antonio is El Peñon, a more upscale neighborhood with fancy restaurants and hotels. Parque del Perro and Granada are two other neighborhoods that are popular among foreigners. Personally, I recommend San Antonio.
Most other places in the city are fine to stay in, but they’re more residential. The north and south of the city both have wonderful neighborhoods, such as Santa Monica, Ciudad Jardin, and La Flora.
Cost of Living
In comparison to many other countries, the cost of living in Colombia is very cheap. Cali is cheaper than other large cities, like Bogotá and Cartagena. I live alone in a two-story, furnished studio apartment in a nice part of the city and I live comfortably off of $2.000.000 COP (about $670) per month. I live this way because I can afford to, but it’s possible to live comfortably on much less. Here’s a breakdown of my costs each month and alternatives:
Rent per month: $750.000 COP ($250 USD) per month for a furnished studio apartment in a nice part of the city. It’s important to note that this is expensive. For a non-furnished studio apartment expect to pay about $450.000 COP ($150 USD). Alternatively, you can rent a bedroom for as cheap as $250.000 COP ($84 USD). Many places include utilities in the rent.
Gas for my motorcycle: $20.000 COP ($7 USD) per month. Alternatively, you can take public transportation, which costs $2.000 COP ($.70 USD) per trip with free transfers. Uber* is extremely affordable also, with most trips costing between $6.000 COP ($2 USD) and $10.000 COP ($3.30 USD). Taxi is another option. It’s a little bit more expensive than Uber and with much worse service. Be careful when calling cabs off the street. Always order one via Tappsi or another application if possible.
*It’s important to note that Uber is illegal in Colombia, but the police don’t care as much as in other cities, like Bogotá. An important difference to know is that when you order an Uber, someone needs to sit in the front seat. And if you’re pulled over for any reason you shouldn’t say that you’re in an Uber.
Food: $400.000 COP ($133 USD) per month. This includes going to the grocery store for basic items and eating out often (I’m lazy with cooking sometimes). It’s possible to spend way less money on food, especially if you shop at local markets. If you’re really on a budget, I believe it would be possible to spend about $100.000 COP ($33 USD) per month on food.
Going out: $200.000 COP ($67 USD) per month. I go out every weekend, but if you don’t go out it’s possible to save this money. A beer costs about $2.000 COP ($.70 USD) at the supermarket and about $5.000 COP ($1.67 USD) at a bar. If a club has an entrance fee, it’s usually around $10.000 COP ($3.30 USD). Cocktails cost about $20.000 USD ($7 USD) and a bottle of rum or aguardiente costs about $80.000 COP ($27 USD) in a bar.
Gym: I pay about $140.000 COP ($47 USD) per month for my gym membership at Body Tech, but there are cheaper options throughout the city.
Phone: I pay $40.000 COP ($13 USD) per month for my cell phone plan with Claro. It includes some minutes (supposedly, but I almost never have minutes to make a phone call), some data, and unlimited Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter for the whole month. A sim card costs about $2 USD.
I spend the other money on traveling, activities with friends, or personal things (like getting my nails done).
Work for Foreigners
It’s not too difficult for foreigners to find work in Cali, but you have to put in a little effort to find it. I started out teaching English here, but now I work independently. I have some private students that I teach and I also do freelance writing.
The most important thing when looking for work is connections. Always try to make as many social connections as possible, because people are very willing to help you out and this is the best way to find private students or other work.
You’ll find that English speakers are in high demand, but the pay is not too great. Don’t expect to be making what you would make in the U.S. or European countries.
If you’re in Cali you’ll notice that only women are passengers on motorcycles. This is because it’s illegal for a man to be a passenger. This is due to the violence in the 1980’s (resulting from drugs) when people would hired assassins on motorcycles would murder people.
It’s technically illegal to drink on the street, but it’s tolerated in most parts of the city.
You cannot use your cell phone inside of a bank and you can receive a fine for doing so. This is for the safety of everyone, so please respect it.
Take off hats or motorcycle helmets each time you walk into a bank or similar place.
In general, it’s not too difficult to understand Caleño spanish. Sometimes they talk a little fast, but don’t be afraid to ask them to slow it down a little.
Caleños start almost every sentence with the words “Mira” o “Ve”. They use a lot of slang and a lot of them time they’re talking without really saying anything at all. I recommend trying to make some local friends so they can teach you all the slang.
Things to do
I don’t usually recommend Cali, Colombia to tourists who are just stopping by because there’s not really a lot to see within Cali itself. The popular tourist attractions are:
El Gato: A large cat statue that has a lot of “girlfriends”. The “girlfriends” are smaller, painted cat statues painted by local artists and each one has its own personality.
El Bulevar: As mentioned above, it’s a cool place to grab a drink and hang out with friends.
The Cali Zoo: Cali has a surprisingly nice zoo with a wide variety of animals. It’s not too expensive and not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
Cristo Rey: This is a large statue of Jesus (similar to the one in Rio de Janeiro but less impressive). It’s worth going here because it has the best view of the city. I recommend going during the week around 4 P.M. and staying to watch the city light up.
Tres Cruces: This is a small mountain you can climb with three crosses at the top (hence the name). Good for exercise and to escape the city for a little while. DO NOT hike this alone because it can be dangerous.
San Antonio Park: Located in the neighborhood of San Antonio, this park is a great place to get a view of the city. You can drink a beer and eat some local foods with friends.
My favorite places are actually just outside of Cali. They’re a little more difficult to get to but if you get there it’s worth it!
Charco Escondido: In the south of the city, many people go to Rio Pance on the weekends. It’s a refreshing river that’s popular for swimming. Charco Escondido is part of the river, but more secluded (its name in English is Hidden Swimming Hole). You need to drive past Jamundi and walk about 45 minutes to find it. It’s a deep swimming hole with a little waterfall that you can jump off of. And it’s much less crowded than other parts of Pance. It costs $1.000 COP (about $.30 USD) to enter.
Kilometro 18: This is a stop on the highway on the way to Buenaventura. It’s cold here and offers a wonderful escape from Cali’s oppressive heat. It’s common to go here at night and eat something with friends. Make sure to bring a jacket!
Dapa: A small town just outside of Cali, Dapa is famous for its restaurants that offer views of the city. It’s also a nice place to escape from the heat. Head here with some friends and grab some aguapanela con queso.
All in all, Cali is a wonderful place to visit with amazing people. Its reputation scares many people away, but it’s important to know that its reputation is often exaggerated. Cali is definitely worth adding to your itinerary!
Have you ever been to Cali, Colombia? Would you like to go? What would you add to this guide?